I was planning on posting this review of Jonathan Evison’s brilliant new novel, West of Here just a few weeks before the February release date, but this week his publisher surprised me and released the book early. (Thinking I was getting a jump on things, I returned home from ABA Winter Institute to see WOH already on the front table in the store.) Jonathan also received a huge spread in the industry daily, Shelf Awareness this week, not to mention that the book is the Number One Indiebound pick for February. So rather than being ahead of the curve for once, I am a day late and a dollar short. Sigh.
It was the early review blurbs on the ARC back jacket that actually forced my hand – yes, I fell victim to the marketing campaign. David Liss, author of The Coffee Trader (which I finally read last year), Dan Chaon, of Await Your Reply (which I read & mildly enjoyed last year), and Jim Lynch, who I have not read but have considered reading (which is good enough). Algonquin then threw these two softballs at me: James P. Othmer, a casual reader of the Book Catapult and author of the 2010 Notable Notable Holy Water who called it “A daring, gorgeously structured, and deeply satisfying expedition of a novel” and Ron Currie, author of my favorite book from 2009, Everything Matters! ‘Nuff said, as they say. (I am sorry that all of the blurbs were provided by male authors, but it wasn’t my fault.)
West of Here is set in the fictional town of Port Bonita on the Olympic peninsula of Washington and alternates between two time periods: 1890, when the town is just beginning and Washington is on the cusp of statehood and 2006, when the town is fading from prominence and the decisions made in 1890 are coming full circle on the residents. The cast of characters is vast, but not unmanageable and you soon learn of the wide variety of connections between the residents of the two time periods.
“…what I really wanted to write was a novel about history, about the countless tiny connections that bind people together, and tie people to a place, and a time, and how the sum total of all these connections amounted to a living breathing history.” – Jonathan Evison, in an interview in Shelf Awareness, January 24, 2011
1890: James Mather is leading a relatively foolish expedition south of Port Bonita, along the Elwha River and hopefully over the mountains to the greener pastures and fertile valleys beyond. The Klallam Indians in the area have warned him of the Thunderbird who protects the southern valley, but Mather presses on. Eva Lambert has come to Port Bonita to write for the local newspaper and make a name for herself, independent of her father or any other man. She is also 9 months pregnant when the curtain rises – an obstacle she refuses to yield to. Ethan Thornburgh has followed Eva to this tiny town, in the hopes of forcing her to accept him and allow him to prove that he is a man of some salt. Determined to capitalize on the approaching land grab, Ethan has grand plans for Port Bonita and the surrounding environs. And then there’s young Thomas, mute and mysterious, he has a foot in both the White world and the Klallam, the physical and the ethereal. Is he really The Storm King of legend or just a weird little kid?
2006: The descendants of PB’s original residents are living in the shadow of all that their forefathers wrought. After Ethan Thornburgh built the Thornburgh hydroelectric dam in 1894, the region changed – for a time, for the better. The salmon cannery industry blossomed for much of the 20th century and the population boomed, but now the salmon stock has been depleted, mostly due to the fact that the fish can no longer swim upriver due to the dam. Port Bonita is a dying town. Jared Thornburgh, son of a senator and great-grandson to Ethan, struggles with reconciling the town’s past with the future and the legacy of his family name. Dave Krigstadt is convinced he saw Bigfoot in the mountains, but is learning that he needs to set boundaries when he talks to other people. Mostly about Bigfoot. Franklin Bell, the local parole officer and the only black man in town, lives alone, hums Don Henley songs, and drinks eggnog all-year-round. Curtis is a young, troubled Klallam who rails against the establishment, but seems to have a deep connection to his predecessor, Thomas – although, what this connection really is remains to be seen.
It would be really easy for this review to get away from me and end up being a synopsis of every character that inhabits the pages of West of Here. I think the author put it best in his interview: this is a novel about the connecting threads between us all, whether across generations and decades or between those we see every day. We all are responsible, on some level, for the creation of the space we live in and ultimately how livable that space becomes.
On the surface, you might wonder, “Well, what’s this all about?” That’s just the point, actually – the arc of this story traces seemingly insignificant glimpses into the lives of the characters that ultimately become monumental, life-changing events when viewed from afar. Evison uses his considerable powers to weave together all these vignettes of PB’s residents – a staggering chorus of voices – into a stunning tale of humanity at both its absolute worst and its heart-rendering best. The veil that separates generations proves to be rather thin, even porous, when you step back with a little historical perspective.
Oh, and in case all of that sounds too serious, it tends to be really, really funny. Onward!
…Bell lowered himself back onto his squeaky chair then stood, walked to the corner, picked up the eggnog carton, and dunked it. He sat back down in his squeaky chair. “That there’s a high percentage shot. And that’s how you do it, Tillman. You gotta slam dunk your life. Think about the future you want for yourself. When you figure that out, the rest is easy. Find a hole, get yourself a head full of steam, grip that rock, and drive to the hoop. And like the man says, ‘Don’t look back, you can never look back!'”